Canada: Four month forestry workers’ strike over health and safety conditions

Industrial action follows spate of public sector strikes

Since 21 July, 7,000 British Columbia (BC) coastal loggers and saw mill workers have been on strike. The members of the United Steel Workers (USW) union have been standing firm on issues of working conditions, including health and safety.

Since 2004, many employers, backed by a British Colombia (BC) government-legislated collective agreement, have imposed work days of 12-16 hours, when hours on the job and travel time are factored together.

Since January 2005, more than 65 forest workers have been killed. Last year, a coroner’s jury confirmed what many knew already, that unsafe shifts and contracting-out have increased the likelihood of injuries and fatalities.

Including the issues of working hours, BC coastal forestry workers are also fighting against changes to contracting-out work to non-union contractors, as well as demanding severance pay for workers permanently laid off through closure of part of a facility. These issues were incorporated into an agreement after a strike in 2003. Many workers feel they lost too much in the agreement, which sowed the seeds for the current strike action.

Early on in the strike, the international president of the USW, Leo Gerard, spoke to a rally of over 200, in Campbell River, Vancouver Island, saying: “They’re [the forestry companies] going to give it up when they come to their senses or they’re going to give it up when they’ve been brought to their knees,"

Fighting talk, action and a lot of determination from the workers is shown throughout the different towns and cities involved. Many striking workers have faced negative press, which is particularly aimed at trying to stir resentment between different sections of workers. The media try to give the impression that the strike will be blamed for possible pulp mill closures.

The use of non-union labour has stopped the complete shutting down of the $2billion industry, and is ultimately preventing a victory for the strikers, so far. Frustrated at this situation, a group of women whose husbands are on strike, and who call themselves the ‘Desperate housewives’, recently blockaded a non-union log sort in Saward, Vancouver Island. Quoted in a local newspaper, one of the woman said: “We’re out in support of our husbands. There’s no negotiations going on with them and they are forbidden to picket to stop the logging trucks, so us wives decided we would stop them in a protest. If they [non-union workers] went down and helped our husbands then our strike would have been settled sooner. It’s kind of hard to make an effect when the companies are still making money with contractors. They’ve squeezed out most of the union guys and brought in more contractors.”

This highlights another reason the strike is so important: there is a clear attempt by the companies to significantly weaken the union to enable bosses’ to increase hours, and to introduce more ‘flexible’ work patterns, which, in turn, mean more profits for them.

Pressure is on the union to reach a settlement. The issue of the rising Canadian dollar against the US dollar, which recently hit a 31 year high, is, undoubtedly, getting the companies hot under the collar, as they fear of sales of lumber falling.

There are reports of ‘informal’ talks taking place. A spokesperson from the coastal lumber company, Mill & Timber, said if the talks lead to a settlement: “The union won’t like it, and the companies won’t like it. Everybody is going to have to put some tabasco sauce on it and eat it.”

Shut down the forestry industry!

In the face of this sort of talk, the union has to urgently step up the campaign to completely shut the industry down, to force the companies to accept the strikers’ demands. Recent action has been taken, with the leafleting of over 10% of Home Depot stores (home improvement stores) throughout North America, appealing to both the public and the stores not to buy the products from the companies where workers are on strike.

This is a positive approach to try and involve other workers, as well as explaining why the reasons for the strike. But the union leadership needs to do more to give the workers a real chance of winning.

The USW represents more than 280,000 men and women, in every sector of the economy in Canada, and has a total membership of 850,000, making it North America’s largest industrial union. Given the sheer size of the union, its potential strength is huge. If unused, it is a failure on the part of the union leadership. But militant, determined action – including spreading workers’ solidarity and action – can send a clear message to other companies that if they want to weaken unions to pursue policies which put the lives of workers in danger they will be stopped. On a wider scale, militant action could potentially involve thousands more workers, and give a concrete example of how to win, which would strengthen the workers’ movement.

A victory for the forestry workers is possible and is a must for their jobs, their safety, their union and their confidence. But it is also needed to give a boost to many other sections of workers fighting the same attacks on working conditions. Many strikes in British Colombia, in recent years, centred around the issues of fighting against privatisation, outsourcing of work, and an erosion of working conditions, such as lengthening of the working day . Examples include the BC teachers’ strike, two years ago, and the recent Vancouver city workers’ strike. Although pay has been an issue, workers are also taking action to defend their working conditions and public services.

Over 7,000 Vancouver city workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employed (CUPE), were recently on strike for many weeks in July and October (see ’Vancouver City workers on strike’ article on While some workers’ leaders reached a ’deal’, 800 library workers are still on the picket lines. They have been fighting for a fair contract and against outsourcing of jobs and services to private companies. Many of these issues have not yet been won and future action will be needed to ensure that the services remain publicly and adequately funded.

These recent inspirational and solid strikes in BC show the determination and support that exists amongst the working class to stop further attacks on working conditions

With the deterioration of the environment and economic crises developing across the world, the need for a socialist alternative has never been so urgent. With this comes the urgency for a new democratic, socialist, fighting workers’ party, to enable everyone to live in a world where work does not put their very lives at risk and where the needs of all are met.

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October 2007